Intergenerational Relationships and Union Stability in Fragile Families

By Högnäs, Robin S.; Carlson, Marcia J. | Journal of Marriage and Family, October 2010 | Go to article overview

Intergenerational Relationships and Union Stability in Fragile Families


Högnäs, Robin S., Carlson, Marcia J., Journal of Marriage and Family


Using data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (N = 2,656), we examined the association between intergenerational relationships and parents' union stability 5 years after a baby's birth. Results showed that more amiable relationships between parents and each partner's parents, and children's spending more time with paternal grandparents, increased the odds that parents coresided by the time their child was age 5. The more time that children spent with maternal grandparents reduced union stability, although this result was not robust to methods that better address selection. These findings underscore the importance of the broader social contexts affecting couple stability and suggest that even amid demographic changes, intergenerational family ties are important for couples and, by extension, their children.

Key Words: fragile families, intergenerational relationships, union stability.

Family structure and stability have long been of interest to social scientists, given the fundamental role of families in rearing and socializing children. Children who spend time in single-parent families and those who experience multiple family transitions are at greater risk than children who grow up with both biological parents of having psychological problems, having sex or bearing children at an early age, dropping out of high school, and a host of other negative outcomes (Amato, 2005; Fomby & Cherlin, 2007; McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994). Therefore, both researchers and policy makers have been concerned with the factors that predict union stability, particularly among couples with children.

Research to date has emphasized the role of individual- and couple-level characteristics associated with marital and nonmarital union stability (e.g., Lichter, LeClere, & McLaughlin, 1 99 1 ; Smock, 2000); however, not much is known about how extended family relationships influence the stability of couple relationships. A limited body of literature has examined how network ties influence relationships among college students and long-term marriages (Bryant & Conger, 1999; Bryant, Conger, Meehan, & Meehan, 2001; Sprecher & Felmlee, 1992), but these studies focus on unions found early or late in the life course and are limited to small, nonrepresentative samples. The extent to which extended family relationships influence union stability for couples after the birth of a child remains largely unexplored.

In this article, we used data from multiple waves of the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (N = 2,656) to examine whether intergenerational relationships between mothers and paternal grandparents, fathers and maternal grandparents, and the focal child's interaction with both grandparents, influence couples' relationship stability early in a child's life. We draw on social integration and uncertainty reduction theories to argue that more positive relationships between partners and extended kin likely increase union stability after the birth of a child. Our results show that stronger intergenerational relationships, including greater interaction between the paternal grandparents and the focal child, increased the probability that couples were coresiding (either cohabiting or were legally married) by the time their child was age 5.

THEORETICAL PERSPECTIVES AND PREVIOUS RESEARCH

Theoretical consideration of the importance of social integration dates back to Durkheim's ( 1 897/1 95 1 ) seminal work on suicide. Durkheim posited that the interplay between an individual and a collectivity has the potential to shape individual outcomes, including one's decision to commit suicide. Social isolation, regardless of the cause, separates individuals from the larger collectivity that gives them a sense of belonging. Although Durkheim never actually defined social integration (Moen, Dempster-McClain, & Williams, 1989), it is typically conceived of as the connectedness of individuals through a set of shared beliefs and norms constituting a collectivity (e. …

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